At age 57, Dr. Nancy Whitley made a career switch and pursued more medical training to specialize in the care of seriously ill patients.
Known as palliative care medicine, the field is sometimes mistaken for only end-of-life care, but its broader purpose is to help patients maintain control over their lives.
“She had a passion for people who had serious illnesses,” said Dr. Joseph Amberg, a colleague at Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis, where Whitley had worked for decades.
Shortly after starting her palliative care training at the University of Minnesota in 2014, she received her own cancer diagnosis.
“As soon as Nancy knew that she had cancer, she immediately starting thinking about her illness and about, ‘How do I maintain my quality of life the best I can?’ ” said Dr. Glen Varns, who, like Amberg, practices palliative care at Abbott.
“She also continued to work in palliative care as part of what gave her life meaning and quality,” Varns said.
Whitley died July 9 at age 62.
Born in Langdale, Ala., Whitley moved to Minnesota to take a job at 3M in 1980 after earning a chemical engineering degree from the Georgia Institute of Technology, commonly referred to as Georgia Tech.
After four years as a product development engineer, she left the company to get a medical degree in 1988 from the University of Minnesota Medical School.
“She was very comfortable examining her life and going in a different direction,” said Dr. Jim Adams, her life partner.
Whitley’s switch to medicine was about working more closely with people.
“She had a marvelous gift for empathy,” Adams said.
Her skills extended to colleagues as well as patients.
After working as a primary care doctor in medical clinics, in 2004 she was hired at Abbott as a hospitalist, a position that specializes in the care of inpatients.
By 2012 she was named chairwoman of the hospital’s department of medicine. “One of the skills you need is diplomacy, and Nancy certainly had that,” Varns said.
Along the way she met Adams, and they developed a relationship. Both had been divorced and for many years they defined their relationship as one of sweethearts, maintaining separate homes.
Whitley accepted that everyone makes mistakes, he said.
“She believed that there were no bad guys, and there were no evil people in the world,” said Adams.
Always looking forward, she also learned how to accept herself.
“She had few regrets in life,” he said.
Adams said he and Whitley’s children are recalling her approach to life.
“If you focus on joy, remembering the wonderful things with that person, you will do far better with grief than sorrow,” he said.
Whitley loved dogs, jogging and cooking and was an avid reader and writer, keeping many journals, according to her family.
In addition to Adams, Whitley is survived by a son, Zachary Nelson; a daughter, Anna Whitley; ex-husband Jeffrey Nelson; and four brothers: Ernie Harry, John Harry, Robert Harry and Mark Harry.
A memorial gathering will be held at 2 p.m. Aug. 24, in Allina Commons Pettengill Hall, 2925 Chicago Av., Minneapolis.